Crusoe’s Daughter, published in 1986, has been reissued to fill the gap between Gardam’s last novel (God on the Rocks, 2010) and her next one, Last Friends, due out next year. If you’re not familiar with Gardam’s backlist, start with this poignant story based on the author’s mother’s life on the northwest coast of England.
In 1904 Polly Flint, an exceptional child, is thrust into a commonplace life. Her mother dead for two years, Polly is six when her sea-captain father, defeated by single parenthood, leaves her in a yellow house by the sea with two maiden aunts – just before his own death.
The aunts, who are not as old as they seem to a child, do their best. Polly has lessons at home, including French and German, and access to an extensive library, where she discovers Robinson Crusoe, whose story is a metaphor for her life. Marooned in an adult household remote from the world, Polly emulates Crusoe’s courage and his capacity to grow in spite of his boundaries. Polly attends church with her pious aunts but, in a rebellion that may be the key to her character, she refuses to be confirmed.
As Polly gets older, her days are relatively uneventful: she goes to a coffee, she visits a relative’s artist colony, she travels as far as York. Her friendships are rare but rewarding. She falls in love, forgets her place, endure humiliation and terrible loss, for which she is unprepared, during the First World War.
Told in her unsparing way, Polly veers into darkness for years, but those who love her find a way out. There may even be a happy ending; but you will have to decide that for yourself.